Acton Institute Powerblog

Tithe and Tithe Again

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In a way, the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford recognizes a fact that Ron Sider has written on and I have thought about for a long time. In “A New Take on Tithing,” Claude Rosenberg & Tim Stone write:

Too often, individuals make decisions about how much money to donate to charitable causes on an ad hoc basis. As a result, many people give less money than they can actually afford. If the affluent contributed as much to nonprofits as the authors believe they can, charitable giving in the United States would increase by $100 billion a year – enough to solve many of the world’s most pressing problems.

Sider has previously written: “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

The Stanford estimate is about one-third higher than Sider’s estimate with regard to how much extra charitable income there might be if the tithe were rigorously implemented. Part of the difference might be due to the fact that there are somewhat different sets of people under examination. The Stanford estimate is primarily based on “the affluent,” while Sider is talking about “American Christians” in general (clearly there is significant but not complete overlap).

But another aspect of the difference might in fact be the nuance of the Stanford piece’s analysis, and one of its key points: charitable giving should not be based simply on take home pay. Under what they call the “old tithe,” the following seems to be the case, “When people tithe, they typically base the amount they give on their income alone, not on their income and investment assets.”

Of course, assuming that at first the investment asset seed money was take home pay, the tithe would have already been applied to those funds. In essence, the “new tithe” is a double application of the tithe, the second time pertaining to profits earned with money to which the tithe had previously been applied.

Whether or not you think this sort of double tithe is appropriate, the Stanford piece does raise the important question of the responsible stewardship of investment profits. And while at first Sider’s estimate may seem more conservative than the Stanford estimate, if you take into account Sider’s endorsement of a graduated tithe, Sider’s model would end up being much more stringent in terms of its expectations (the graduated tithe is the idea that as income increases, so should the percentage of giving increase, eventually to 100% above a certain threshold).

Some may object that the new double tithe or the graduated tithe, or even the old tithe itself is too legalistic, too stringent, or both. To that I have two things to say.

First, let’s put the level of giving in perspective. Whether or not you think the tithe is a biblical requirement, it is valid as a consistent baseline measure. According to Barna’s research, “The proportion of households that tithe their income to their church – that is, give at least ten percent of their income to that ministry – has dropped by 62% in the past year, from 8% in 2001 to just 3% of adults during 2002.” In addition, “9% of born again Christians tithed their income to churches in 2004,” and “When contributions are examined as a percentage of household income, giving to religious centers represents about 2.2% of gross income.”

Second, even if you agree with Russell Earl Kelly, Ph.D., that the tithe is not a biblical requirement, it is a far more difficult case to make that the tithe is “unbiblical” or anti-Scriptural. The category of adiaphora would apply here, I think. So, for example, the assertion that the New Testament does not explicitly endorse or teach tithing does not necessarily mean that Christians cannot practice it or that it is “wrong” to tithe.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Ian

    Two questions Jordan (this was great, by the way):

    Have you looked at the Google & Virgin commitments reported recently that would commit profits to socially-beneficial investments? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on those, kind of as they represent an extension of the personal “double tithe” on investments you mention here. Obviously not ecclesiastical, but an interesting model.

    And while the numbers about tithes to churches at the end seem disturbing, is there any indication that some of that “lost” tithe money is going to ecumenical or secular humanitarian work or other good causes? So many American Christians I talk to perceive their congregations as wasteful, and I know quite a few have isolated their tithe money from their congregations and put it toward the “widows and orphans,” but I don’t know if this means they think they’re off the hook for 10%, or if that proportion has lagged with a loss of vigor and discipline.

  • Ian, thanks for the excellent questions.

    Here are a few quick answers. I think it is the responsibility of those who make money to be good stewards with what they have been given, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and so on. Oftentimes the best thing for business people to do is to reinvest and create more wealth. Stick with your calling, with what you are good at, you might say.

    But on the other hand, I’m not in principle against what Richard Branson has pledged to do, regardless of whether or not I think this specific cause is the one he should be championing.

    The Google case is perhaps a bit more murky, as it is claiming to a “for-profit charity.” I think this kind of thinking confuses a number of things, and seems to intimate that profit measures are the only valuable ways of measuring things. There are many institutions that should not take their primary cue or measurement of success from the bottom line profits…churches, for instance.

    It is a trusim that non-profits don’t have the same measures as for-profit businesses, but that doesn’t mean that there are therefore no objective standards to measure. They just happen to be different standards. In part, that’s what we’re doing here at Acton with [url=]the Samaritan Awards[/url].

    And regarding your second question, I do think that much more money is going to charities that are para-church or secular charitable organizations, rather than to the local congregation. It is a real debate whether the local congregation has the claim on the entire tithe and whether whatever you give outside the church should be above and beyond.

    My inclination is to say that this is a matter of individual judgment and depends on the situation. It may well be that you are being a better stewards of your money by giving a portion or most of your tithe outside your local congregation. I can’t say for sure, but it seems to me to be a prudential matter.